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Waste Not, Watt Not

It's been a bummer of a week for climate news. The Senate bill continues to languish behind health care and there have been...

It's been a bummer of a week for climate news. The Senate bill continues to languish behind health care and there have been some disconcerting rumbles that it might now be back-burnered even longer as an increasingly spineless nervous Senate focuses on jobs and deficit. And out of Singapore on Sunday we hear that Copenhagen definitely won't produce a legally-binding agreement, but will rather be the first piece of a "one-agreement, two-step" process, the controversial (and dangerous (pdf), and expensive) delay due largely to U.S. inaction.

So allow me this week-amidst immense frustration-to focus on something positive. Let's take a look at the core climate solution, the lowest hanging fruit on the emissions reductions tree, the no-brainer fix that is so practical, so cheap, and has such potential, that it's going to make America's hesitation to commit to even modest CO2 cuts seem absolutely ridiculous. We're talking, of course, about efficiency.

Lost in all the argument over mitigation targets and emissions reductions is the simple idea that reaching these goals might actually be easy. Well, easier than anyone is anticipating, and potentially a great boon for the economy at large and for the average American's wallet. Consider this: The emissions reductions goals laid out in the Waxman-Markey House bill could be met by improving energy efficiency alone and at a net savings to the public and U.S. businesses. According to a July McKinsey report, a $520 billion investment in efficiency through 2020 would yield gross energy savings to the tune of $1.2 trillion, effectively lowering the nation's energy bill by nearly $700 billion while cutting emissions by 23 percent from business-as-usual. Just how big is this savings? "Greater than the total energy consumption of Canada excluding transportation," said Ken Ostrowski, a senior partner at McKinsey.

A similarly enlightening report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found that the efficiency provisions already in the Waxman-Markey bill would save the average American household $750 annually by 2020 and a whopping $3,900-a-year by 2030, meanwhile creating around 650,000 jobs. This is part of the reason why a diverse coalition of nearly 200 business, labor, civil rights, and environmental groups sent a letter earlier this month to Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, urging her to support an important energy-efficiency provision in the Senate's legislation.

What's more, these reports didn't even touch the transportation sector, where increased fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks that the Administration has already rolled out will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly a gigaton (add another roughly three-quarters to the efficiency savings noted above) and save the average car buyer more than $3,000 in fuel costs. Nor did the McKinsey report factor in a price on carbon emissions, which most analysts and experts see as inevitable. "Even if we don't get a climate bill this year, it's extremely conservative to think there will not be a price on carbon in the next decade," said Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Meaning the cost savings will surely be even greater.

Translation: it won't be painful to meet the reductions goals of Waxman-Markey or whatever version comes out of the Senate. And while these goals are admittedly far too modest and don't nearly achieve what the latest science demands, Congress's hesitation to commit them to law remains the biggest barrier to a global climate agreement. Americans need to understand that for all the drawn-out debate, these target emissions levels aren't so big a hurdle. We can step right up to them using existing technologies in ways that actually save consumers money and creates jobs. The commitments that we just can't seem to make, for which the world is impatiently waiting, can be met with the simplest of win-win-win solutions. Energy efficiency's moment is long overdue.

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